Gore Vidal's Unfinished American Revolution
Gore Vidal loved America in the way the best of the founders did.
Indeed, he seemed at times, to be the last of their number—a fierce defender of the purest, most revolutionary of ideals at a time when the contemporary political class prattled on about constitutional principles they neither understood nor valued. (At the bicentennial, in 1976, Time magazine featured a cover with Vidal in historic garb, an honor that delighted him sufficiently to earn a place for the cover on the wall of his Italian villa.)
Vidal, who has died at age 86, was a great man of letters: an author ( Julian, Burr, Lincoln, The City and the Pillar), playwright (“The Best Man”) and National Book Award–winning essayist ( United States Essays, 1952–1992) on the literature of his native land and the world. To this he added status as a life-long challenger of the Puritanism that he regarded as the ugliest of American tendencies.
But I knew Gore as a political champion, who ran inspired campaigns for Congress, who demanded that presidents of both parties be held to account for high crimes and misdemeanors, who maintained a faith in democracy so deep and abiding that he called for a new constitutional convention to set right what was done wrong at Philadelphia and to realize the Jeffersonian requirement of revolutionary renewal. He was, as well, a scorching debater on topics political, as William F. Buckley learned to his chagrin in 1968.
Like most of Gore’s friends, I came to know him first on the page.
His epic 1972 essay “ Homage to Daniel Shays”—written as voters in “the land of the tin ear” prepared to re-elect Richard Nixon, in confirmation of Gore’s observation that: “At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation, and prejudice”—remains the greatest contemporary statement of American Revolutionary principles.
This was where our relationship began. I loved Gore immediately, for his dangerous wit, for his savage style, for his truth telling. “Policy formation is the province of a bipartisan power elite of corporate rich [Rockefeller, Mellon] and their career hirelings [Nixon, McNamara] who work through an interlocking and overlapping maze of foundations, universities and institutes, discussion groups, associations and commissions,” he observed. “Political parties are only for finding interesting and genial people [usually ambitious middle-class lawyers] to ratify and implement these policies in such a way that the under classes feel themselves to be, somehow, a part of the governmental process. Politics is not exactly the heart of the action but it is nice work—if you can afford to campaign for it.”
In his homage to the organizer of Shays’ Rebellion, Gore imagined a “ Property Party”—or, to be more precise, he renewed an old populist critique that employed variations on the term—that was made up of Democrats and Republicans with shared loyalty to their paymasters on Wall Street.
In Richard Nixon, Gore found the crudest face—to that point, at least—of the Property Party.
“To maintain its grip on the nation, the Property Party must keep actual issues out of political debate. So far they have succeeded marvelously well. Faced with unemployment, Nixon will oppose abortion. Inflation? Marijuana is a halfway house to something worse,” he explained, in a soliloquy that, with the change of a few names and locations, remains fresh forty years after it was written. “The bombing of North Vietnam? Well, pornographers are using the mailing lists of Cub Scouts. Persuading the people to vote against their own best interests has been the awesome genius of the American political elite from the beginning.”